Wednesday, 31 October 2012

An uneasy pact: Radiohead host an evening at the O2 Arena

First published in Loud And Quiet

O2 Arena
9th October 2012

One miserable day in the late 1990s, five successful young men called Radiohead decided to get off the bus, in a manner of speaking. From now on, they said, this stadium-filling rock band wouldn't be playing stadiums. They wouldn't be playing rock, either. So they binned their guitars, sent drummer Phil Selway on an extended tea break and totally recalibrated their musical compass.

It was a savvy and well-timed move; even if that drastic severance with guitar-based anthemic angst rock had produced nothing but the opening track to Kid A, it would've been a major success. The stadiums and guitars crept back in slowly, but their point was made.

Still, this display of high-minded artistic integrity came at a price. Tonight's show neatly demonstrates the uneasy ongoing pact between band, fans and industry, as Radiohead try to pull off bashful underdog-ism and bleeding edge electronica while performing in a tented dome so vast it requires its own Tube station. Inside the O2 Arena, an avenue of chain restaurants behind fake plastic facades leads to a shabby entrance swarming with Greenpeace volunteers. “Sign here to save the Arctic?” asks one, proffering an iPad.

In the boxy arena, support act Caribou is playing a lonely pre-8pm slot to no one in particular. Despite being drawn or dragged into the world of electronic music by the band they've paid £70 to see, the fans who've made it down early seem unfamiliar with Dan Snaith's sparkly and emotive rave-lite, which owes so much to Radiohead's clever-yet-accessible digital dabblings.

They also remain surprisingly static even as the band walk on stage and kick off with a bouncy 'Lotus Flower' and a string of material from last year's beat-driven The King Of Limbs. Radiohead shows should be sweaty and intense, surely, with grown adults sobbing in euphoric melancholy? A man in front hyperventilates his way through 'Videotape', gulping down snotty tears as the looped piano dissolves into shuffling beats, but otherwise the first half fails to incite the levels of deranged devotion usually seen in a half-mile radius of Thom Yorke.

They embellish newer songs with unexpected techno percussion and flavours of underground dance (probably inspired by this year's remix album, featuring producers like Mark Pritchard [see video above] and Blawan), but really they're hobbling forward with a ball and chain, forced to play and replay 'Planet Telex' and 'Paranoid Android' to our froth-mouthed joy while yearning to break free from the pre-millennial angst and anthemic codas and get on with sounding more like Actress, say, whose record filled the between-set gap earlier on.

Three encores complete a marathon two-hour set and comfort fans with a selection of best-loved tracks – 'Street Spirit', 'True Love Waits' melting into 'Everything In Its Right Place' and a rapturous 'Idioteque' – but you wonder if one day their patience will run out and they'll abort their mission to turn wide-eyed indie kids into connoisseurs of the electronic underground. Whatever, the show is faultless, and Radiohead remain essentially the best stadium-filling band you could hope fot.

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